Is your husband stressing you out? You may not be shocked to learn that a recent US poll found that more women report being stressed by their husband than by their kids. Which is no mean feat because kids don't know how to put their socks into a dirty clothes basket, bring their dinner plates to the kitchen, or vomit with any aim whatsoever. (What, just mine?)
US news outlet Today ran the survey of 7000 mums, who rated their stress level at an average of 8.5 out of 10 – which I'm applying to anecdotal evidence collected from my friends to say we're about the same here in Australia. And for nearly half of those women, their husbands – supposedly their partner in parenting and in life – are a bigger source of stress than their kids.
That grim statistic sounds like a sad state in modern marriage, and unfortunately it all comes down to our old friend the mental load.
Three quarters of the women reported that not only they still doing the bulk of childcare and housework, but they're going to work AND organising everyone else in their own home. One in five said a lack of help from their partner was a daily source of stress.
Brisbane mum of two Anita* says her husband is like having a third child. "I pack his lunch and organise his social calendar, just like I do with my two girls," she says. "The only difference is I can't send him to bed early when he refuses to pick up after himself."
Melbourne mum of three Jess* says she's been surprised by how much of the work has been left to her in raising her three children and it's putting her marriage in serious jeopardy. "We both wanted to have kids, but I don't think Richie* understood what he was signing up for," she says.
"Everything I read says I need to communicate with him more to avoid becoming resentful that he leaves just about everything to me, but how many times can I tell him it's important and have him ignore me before things go really south?
"The more I try to communicate with him the more he removes himself, staying late at work and going out with friends. I'm at my wit's end."
The fact that partners are more stressful than children comes largely from different expectations, says relationship counsellor Dan Auerbach. We don't expect much from our kids.
"While we expect kids to take some of our energy, we generally look to our partner for emotional support," he says. "Raising kids takes a huge amount of emotional energy and also adds financial strain. In this context of multiple demands, couples often struggle to stay connected."
This can lead us to experience "attachment stress", explains Dan.
"Attachment stress is the drive that kicks in when we look to our life partner for emotional support but we fear that we're not going to get the engagement or responsive we need.
"When we fear that our partner is going to fail to respond to our needs for emotional support or connection, that very lack of response or engagement becomes our greatest stress, and so naturally we may see our husband as a greater source of stress than our kids."
This can lead to a negative cycle which can lead to strained connections, as in Jess's situation, above, where the woman tries to communicate her dissatisfaction with the man, and the man removes himself further to avoid conflict. Dan says these are predictable negative relationship cycles that can only improve when both people realise their role in the situation and remove blame.
"Both partners are victims of their best attempts to copy with disconnection," he says.
If you and your partner are stuck in a negative interaction pattern, Dan says a great start is to look at your underlying needs.
"If you recognise that you are feeling lonely or that you would like to have your partner alongside you more in the family, talk to them and really be clear about your want for connection," he says.
"Focusing on your partner's avoiding behaviour can trigger guilt and defensiveness. Instead, when we reveal our own needs for connection in a positive way, this has a strongly motivating effect on our partner."
Dan also says men can help by decoding their partner's call for connection.
"Yes, sometimes our partner is saying, 'Hey, it's not fair!' and that's real, but often I've seen that fights about the household chores are placeholders for conversations about disconnection and feeling alone.
"If you have withdrawn from the family or your partner, try and see if your behaviour is a way that you have tried to cope with the stress of disconnection. Be open to invitations to talk about your relationship, including relationship counselling."
Above all else, though, Dan says it's important to cut yourselves a break if this kind of disconnect happens. It's not necessarily cause for alarm.
"In years of studies into adult love and connection, we know that couples fall into these predictable conflict or withdraw cycles," he says. "Many couples benefit from professional help to recognise the negative patterns they've gotten stuck in. Once partners learn their negative cycle the conflict usually stops and the partners can then start to explore their deeper needs for acceptance and connection."